By Matt Sheley, Town of Middletown
A proposal for a $190 million new middle-high school cleared a major hurdle Monday night.
At a well-attended meeting in Town Hall, the Town Council unanimously awarded a $14.3 million contract to HMFH Architects of Cambridge, Massachusetts for continued design and planning work on the building north of Gaudet Middle School.
The move means the project remains on track to go before local voters at a special election this fall — likely on Nov. 7.
Now, HMFH has time to carrying on its work while Middletown tries to secure additional money and reimbursements through the General Assembly to help offset the project costs.
“Let’s see what the reimbursement is when it comes back,” council President Paul M. Rodrigues said. “I’m certainly in favor of moving forward. I think there’s a lot of upside to this. Could it be a little scary right now based on (a) 52 percent reimbursement? Yes. There’s a little uncertainty, but you can’t steal second (base in baseball) when your feet are stuck on first.”
Based on all indications, the General Assembly is expected to wrap up for the 2023 legislative session by the end of June. At that point, Middletown would have spent a little less than $1 million on the architectural work.
As part of its contract with HMFH, Middletown can walk away at a moment’s notice without any additional cost. Council members said that means they could revisit their decision to put the project to voters should the reimbursement figures not swing in Middletown’s favor.
Council Vice President Thomas Welch reminded the audience the recommendations coming forward on the schools aren’t from a paid group. Rather, he said the School Building Committee is made up of volunteer experts with decades of work in the field.
“It’s been a very good process,” Welch said. “Everybody out there who hasn’t been to a meeting or listened to all the information should come and get up to speed because there’s a lot of smart people in that room who are all of the same opinion. We need to take that with some confidence.”
The decision by the council didn’t come without debate. Some said Middletown was putting its strong finances at risk and pursuing the project at the wrong time.
Resident David Dittman said the priority for Middletown shouldn’t be buildings, but what happens in the classrooms. Citing the ongoing banking crisis as a concern, Dittman said the overall school population continued to decline.
“To me, what’s being taught and how it’s being taught should be the top priority, not brick and mortar,” Dittman said.
Former Councilwoman Terri Flynn called the project a “waste of taxpayer dollars” and “very bad business.”
Resident John Bagwill said based on statistics, the schools were not performing well. Instead of spending money on new schools, Bagwill called for an outside expert to study the school district, its performance and curriculum.
In response, others said the schools needed help now and waiting wasn’t an option.
School Building Committee Co-Chairman Charlie Roberts said a recently released Facility Condition Index report from the state Department of Education indicated Middletown High and Gaudet Middle schools needed to be replaced.
“The need is not going away,” Roberts said. “These schools are at a tipping point.”
Fellow School Building Committee member Don Moran said the town is working hard to improve its schools. By offering new Career Technical courses, Moran said Middletown could help bring students from other communities at $17,000 for each pupil.
“Repairing the schools is not an option…” Moran said. “This is the only opportunity we have.”
School Committee Chairwoman Theresa Spengler said the student population of Middletown was changing. She said more than ever before, there were students who were English Language Learners, special needs and homeless, all typically costly populations to educate.
“The time is now to invest in our schools,” said Spengler, who noted children are the community’s future.
An independent architectural firm reported in November 2021 that $190 million in upgrades were needed to the district’s four existing schools before a ceiling or wall were opened. That included asbestos abatement, air quality improvements, security upgrades and other problems identified in their lengthy report. Visit https://mdl.town/Report online to check out that document.
On Election Day last November, local residents overwhelmingly backed a proposal to regionalize schools with Newport and $235 million for a new middle-high school north of Gaudet Middle School as well as an elementary education center on the Valley Road site currently home to Middletown High.
However, those plans were scuttled when Newport residents shot down regionalization by less than 400 voter. Less than a week later, City-By-The-Sea residents learned work on their new Rogers High School was $20 million in the hole.
In the wake of the Nov. 8 vote, the Middletown School Building Committee retained Colliers International as project managers for the $190 million middle-high school, with the DBVW and HMFH architectural firms assisting for the best proposal possible. Educational planning expert Manuel Cordero was also retained to help with the layout of the new building.
Throughout, town and educational officials said they’d prefer to do all the schools at once. However because Middletown was in line for only a 52 percent reimbursement from the state Department of Education — not the 82 percent plus available with regionalization — redoing all the schools was out of reach.
Six pieces of legislation are currently pending before the General Assembly aimed at increasing the town’s reimbursement to 65 percent and to help smooth bond payments, among other benefits.
The way the 231,000-square-foot building was designed, grades 6-8 and 9-12 would be completely separate and not occupy the same spaces at the same time. For economy, they would both access places like the cafeteria, auditorium and gyms and athletic fields, but at different times of the day.
Fourth and fifth grade students now housed in the Gaudet Learning Academy would be relocated into the existing Valley Road high school building, which would be transformed into a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade early learning center.
For the latest information about the project, visit https://mdl.town/NewSchool online. The volunteer School Building Committee is also providing regular updates https://mdl.town/BuildingCommittee online.
In the next few weeks, Cordero is expected to release a community input survey about what residents and businesspeople would like to see in the new school. He has already spoken to teachers, students and other building users and getting feedback from a wider audience is an important part of the process.